The other day was a good one for serendipitous musical juxtapositions. In the car, I got Glenn Gould's performance of the b-minor prelude from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier drifting slowly in and out of rhythmic phase with the clicking of the turn signal; waiting in the dentist's chair, the ceiling speaker serenaded me with the Talking Heads ballad "Heaven," which I imagine is the closest my life will ever get to turning into a Jim Jarmusch movie; later, while correcting papers, I needed to reference something on iTunes, and mindlessly leaving it on, six songs later, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters started singing "White Christmas," which is always much more poignant in hot weather anyway.
I think this intersection of everyday life with random pre-recorded music, an experience unique to the last 75 years or so, has changed the way we expect to interact with music. This sort of serendipity goes way back, of course—think of Clément Janequin's "Les cris de Paris," a quodlibet of 16th-century vendors' cries; In the 19th century, there was a bit of a vogue for the combination of worldly concerns and overheard church music, Schumann's song "Sonntags am Rhine" being a gorgeous example. But it's only in the 20th century that music begins to be piped in everywhere, where it's possible for the sort of surreal found art you get from hearing doo-wop in the supermarket, or free jazz in traffic, or Mozart's greatest hits while on hold on the phone. We're far more used to music grabbing our attention in unexpected and often inappropriate situations.
Occasionally there's a bit of music that pays knowing, beautiful homage to this novel ubiquity. One of the other songs that turned up during my grading shuffle play was "Dance, Dance, Dance" by the Beach Boys, a fragment of pop at its most ephemerally joyous. There's an upward modulation to the final chorus that always sticks with me—a jarring, shift-without-a-clutch harmonic crank in the backing track disguised by a genial slide in the voices. It's an uncanny musical representation of an old car radio, the kind where the presets were accessed with those black push-buttons that physically yanked the needle to the appropriate place on the dial. Normally, any piece that conjures an experience so time- and place-specific tends to dilute its purely musical impact for me; I'm pulled out of the piece and into another world of reduced possibilities. This one always works for me, though—I'm there in the car, peeved that the current offering isn't bright and rhythmic enough, punching the radio, looking for an epiphany. It's an appropriate fantasy for listeners saturated with music: to be able to grab control of the ambient mix, and tune the ether to the exact song for that moment of your life.